Study Finds Best Motivator for Teen Weight Loss

Contributed By Marianne Holman Prescott, Church News staff writer

  • 14 January 2015

BYU psychology professor Chad Jensen and Kara Duraccio work on research regarding weight loss among teens. Research shows that an internal desire for better health and improvement are bigger motivators than outside influences such as social pressures.  Photo by Marcos Escalona, BYU.

Article Highlights

  • A study consisting of 40 teens found that internal motivation outweighs outside influences in weight loss.
  • Parental support is also a big factor. Parents who give positive feedback for healthy decisions will help the teen more than parents who make critical comments about weight or size.

“Adolescents wanted to set realistic goals, accept themselves for who they were, and keep a positive mindset as they worked toward improving their self-worth through weight loss.” —BYU study


Successful weight loss among overweight adolescents comes with an intrinsic desire to be more healthy, researchers out of Brigham Young University found in a recent study published in the journal Childhood Obesity.

With more than 30 percent of adolescents in the U.S. considered overweight or obese, many are concerned with the long-term negative physical and mental health outcomes.

“Many teens live in an environment that sets them up to gain weight, that is not conducive to maintaining a healthy weight,” said Chad D. Jensen, study lead and assistant professor of psychology at BYU. “But many of these teens are making a conscious choice to be different than their environment.”

In an effort to understand reasons for effective weight loss among adolescents, researchers met with 40 participants age 14–20 years old who were recruited using social media and fliers posted in community locations. All of them were enrolled in the AWCR—a national observational survey of long-term maintenance of weight loss among adolescents. Researchers took a qualitative approach, asking questions rather than giving participants a number scale to “rate” their experience.

In order to be included in the research, the youth had to meet three requirements—first, they had to be within the designated age frame; second, they met criteria for being overweight or obese during adolescence; and third, they had to achieve and maintain for at least one year a weight loss of at least 10 pounds. On average, participants had successfully lost and maintained 30 pounds.

Researchers invited participants to share their weight loss story, asking about what got them started to a healthier lifestyle. Then participants were asked what changes they made—such as diet, exercise habits, and home environment—that facilitated a loss of weight. Other topics included outside influences, such as the opinion of their family and friends. Participants were able to talk about their previous attempts at weight loss, how they have kept the weight off, and any suggestions they had for others with a desire to lose weight.

“Participants primarily cited internal motivation, self-worth, and a desire for better health as motivators for their weight loss,” the study states. Although “peer acceptance” was a factor for many, more said their health was their primary motive.

“Adolescents wanted to set realistic goals, accept themselves for who they were, and keep a positive mindset as they worked toward improving their self-worth through weight loss,” the study states.

The majority of teens emphasized that it was their decision to lose weight—not their parents or social pressures—that helped them exercise regularly and resist unhealthy foods.

More than 60 percent of participants said they were motivated to exercise to become healthy rather than targeting a specific body size or shape. Instead of looking at their weight, participants tended to pay more attention to their feelings, as well as their perception of how their clothes fit.

Although the biggest factor in losing and maintaining weight came from that internal desire, another key factor was parental support.

“Support from parents seems to be really critical,” Dr. Jensen said. “Parents played a really important role in their weight loss.”

Depending on what parents do, their involvement can help or hinder their child’s weight loss. Researchers found that youth preferred support from their parents through positive feedback for healthy changes and helping facilitate a healthy environment.

“They need help engineering their environment,” said Dr. Jensen. “[They do that by] having more healthy foods on hand and setting a good example of healthy living.”

Parents who are overly involved or making critical comments about a child’s weight or size can cause barriers to weight loss.

“Good evidence shows that teens push back when parents insist a teen makes a change,” Dr. Jensen said. “Parents ought to proceed with caution, praising teens for their good choices rather than enforce a behavior or tell them they must do something.”

The study states, “Participants indicated that parental criticism of the teen’s appearance, nagging the teen about weight loss, or comparing the teen to other family or friends were unhelpful strategies.”

Parents have the responsibility to help teach their children what is healthy and then how to make decisions, Dr. Jensen said. By praising good decisions—like cutting soda out of their diet rather than weight changes—parents help foster a more healthy environment. A comment such as, “We should be more like you and not drink soda,” can have a positive influence on a child and encourage them to keep living healthy habits.

Times of change—whether a new school or school year—were important in weight loss, for many teens looked at those times as an opportunity to change or improve.

Parents who provide an environment conducive to weight loss—one that has healthy eating choices and encourages physical activity—and who live healthy habits themselves are more effective in helping their children. Through choosing a healthy environment, adolescents are able to set goals, lose weight, and maintain a healthy lifestyle.

“We can look to the Word of Wisdom, where it teaches us we have to make decisions with a moderate approach,” Dr. Jensen said. “We tend to focus on the prohibitive components, but if we look to fruits and vegetables and those things that are good for the body, we are able to find a more moderate approach.”